Solar plane takes flight

Posted on 8 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

A new pioneering solar powered airplane has successfully completed its first major test flight from a military airfield in western Switzerland.

The plane, named Solar Impulse, completed a short acceleration on the runway at Payerne military airport in the Swiss countryside before taking to sky for flight time totallying almost 90 minutes. Once airborne, it maintained a cruising height of one mile high despite reaching only a top speed of 28mph. In comparison, a glider can reach speeds of up to 150mph. It is ultimately expected to attain an average flying speed of 44mph and reach a maximum altitude of 27,900 feet.

German pilot Markus Scherdel completed a series of gentle banks and turns against the dramatic backdrop of the Swiss Alps before successfully landing the 200ft wingspan aircraft to cheers from spectators and the popping of champagne corks. The primary purpose of the flight was to test take off and landing capabilities of the prototype solar aircraft.

“Everything worked as it should,” said Scerdel, following the successful flight. While during the day, the plane relies on direct sunlight to generate power, at night the plane can be flown using energy from its solar cells saved in rechargeable lithium batteries.

The team behind the £70million project, mostly financed by sponsors, are planning a night test flight before July. If that flight is successful, a new plane will be built intended to be flown around the world in 2012 using not an ounce of fuel and kept in the air for up to five days at a time.

The prototype took six years to build and has made a series of ‘flea hops’ since December. But they took it no higher than two feet above the ground.

It is designed by a team led by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, who completed the first non-stop, round-the-world hot air balloon flight in 1999.

He watched the maiden flight from the ground but plans to co-pilot the round-the-world flight in 2012 with Swiss engineer Andre Borschberg.

Although solar flight isn’t new, Piccard’s project is the most ambitious yet. ‘There has never been an airplane of that kind that could fly – never an airplane so big, so light, using so little energy,’ he said. ‘Round-the-world will seem impossible until we do it. Today is an absolutely incredible milestone.’